Funny girl: Irish comedian Sharon Horgan on Catastrophe
Her new Channel 4 series is a runaway hit with fans and critics alike but Irish comedian Sharon Horgan tells Eoin Butler that the only backlash she was afraid of was from the real-life people whose lives she's 'fiddled around with' and shared on screen
Sharon Horgan is in the midst of a hectic schedule of promotional interviews. With her hilarious new sitcom 'Catastrophe' receiving rave reviews - to such an extent that Channel 4 took the rare step of confirming a second series of the show after just two episodes of the first had aired - I'm at my desk in Dublin, idly awaiting her call.
While I wait, on my laptop, the show's Google News mentions are multiplying virtually by the minute. The front page story of the 'Daily Mirror' asks the Irish star if she would prefer to be funny or attractive. Rather an odd question to put to a professional comedian.
But a moot one, in any case, since 44-year-old Horgan undoubtedly is both. Instead, given her new sitcom's brutal and nakedly autobiographical depiction of adult relationships, it occurs to me that a better question might be whether she thinks it's better to be funny, or protective of other people's feelings? 'Catastrophe' was co-written by Horgan and American comedian (and Twitter celebrity) Rob Delaney. It's about two amorous strangers who find themselves bound together, suddenly and involuntarily, by an unplanned pregnancy.
Both admit they've mined their own respective marriages and personal lives for much of the show's material. Indeed, much like her on-screen character, Horgan's own first pregnancy was unplanned. (She and her now husband had been together six months at the time, however, rather than the six days portrayed in the show.)
"What Rob and I have done," Horgan cheerfully explains, when I finally get a hold of her, "is to take full chapters from other people's lives, without their specific permission, and kind of fiddle around with them around a bit."
The show has been called an unromantic look at romance. "Yeah, marriage is really about doing everything you can to avoid getting a divorce. So we wanted to depict a real relationship. One where sometimes you just fucking hate each other. Other times, you can't believe that this person even wants to be with you, they're so amazing." Horgan lives in London, with husband Jeremy Rainbird and their two daughters. Delaney is in Los Angeles. After writing the pilot together in person, further script collaborations were conducted via email and Skype. That was an eight-hour time difference. She would work on scenes in London until 4pm, when her children came home from school. Now 8am in LA, Delaney would wake up with an inbox of new and rewritten scenes to pick over. It must have been a laborious process. So it's not surprising they didn't offer lovers and acquaintances any final veto over what material ended up in the show. Within the bounds of trust and their own better judgment, it was always more practical simply to broadcast and be damned.
Anticipating how people will react if and when they recognise themselves on-screen, she admits, is more than a little scary. "But as long as it's done with love, as long as we make them [the characters] funny and likeable, it shouldn't be too scary."
The highlight of the opening episode was undoubtedly a sequence in which Horgan and Delaney's characters attend a dinner party hosted by the former's pompous, condescending, pseudoscience-espousing frenemy Fran, brilliantly played by 'Extras' star Ashley Jensen. (Horgan's character has a more succinct four-letter description for her.) Is anyone going to watch the series and realise Fran is based on them, I worry?
"Yes, there's a strong chance that will happen. And I am a bit nervous. But it's OK. There are no exact replicas of anybody. It's a little pinch of someone here, and a dash of another person there. Hopefully, no one will recognise themselves lock, stock."
One other nagging concern that arises, reading UK press for the show, concerns Horgan's own nationality. We consider her one of our own, of course. But she was born in London, lived her first three years there and has now spent virtually all of her adult life there too. Even her accent, while undoubtedly native, has marked tendency to wander off the reservation. The British press refers to her variously as British, Irish, English or even English-Irish. Well, missus, what's it going to be? "It always upsets me a little bit when I get called British," she replies. "I don't know what to do about it. I was born in London. But my whole sensibility, my very core is Irish. I don't feel English. I get the English-Irish thing because I was born there. But I'm really proud to be Irish. It's a huge part of who I am."
Our vows renewed, I ask her about Hugh Travers' 'Hungry', Channel 4's proposed Irish famine sitcom and the enormous, and mostly idiotic controversy provoked by it's announcement. "When the controversy started, I told Rob [Delaney] that one of the first sitcoms I ever tried to write was about the famine. So that'll tell you where I stand on it. It's satire. There's always a place for satire. People are getting themselves worked up. They need to calm down."
Of course, the most unedifying position a protester or critic can ever find themselves in is criticising a film they haven't seen, or pillorying a book they haven't read. "Exactly," Horgan agrees. "I just feel sorry for the screenwriter. Because he hasn't even had a chance to write it yet and everyone is already telling him they hate it."
But isn't this a double-edged sword? If we defend a sitcom we haven't seen, what happens if it does end up being in horrible taste, like an Irish version of 'Heil Honey I'm Home'. Won't we look very stupid? She laughs (thank God). "I guess you might have a point there. But I seriously doubt it. Time will tell."
She talks enthusiastically about 'Catastrophe's' unlikeliest supporting cast member, 'Star Wars' actress Carrie Fisher, who appears in two episodes playing Delaney's mother. Horgan and Delaney hit upon the idea of casting Fisher when they spotted her at an award ceremony, presenting an award to Graham Norton.
On a whim, they sent a script to Fisher's agent in Hollywood, scarcely expecting a reply, let alone that she'd take the job. "We did very cheekily ask her and, for some mental reason, she fancied a bit of it. She'd just come off 'Star Wars', maybe she felt like goofing around."
One potential hitch, I've heard, was that the show had to fly her to London on a plane that could accommodate her dog. "That's right. We had to make a special reservation for her dog, Gary Fisher. There are only certain airlines that will fly them."
The dog has a surname? "Well, it's her surname. Gary Fisher. She's in episodes two and five. Gary also makes an appearance." The dog flew transatlantic and appears in the show? "Yes. She's got a special licence for him and we were able to make a special reservation. He's her companion dog."
What's a companion dog, I ask? Horgan won't be drawn. "C'mon," she laughs. "She lives in Hollywood. It's normal!"
Horgan is no stranger to Hollywood herself, with her own production company Merman Films and a string of American pilots under her belt. The latest, 'Divorce' for HBO, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, might potentially mark the actress's return to the network 10 years after 'Sex and the City'.
"We're always developing new stuff, some films, some TV. You kind of need to have your finger in a few pies. But for me, it's all about 'Catastrophe' at the moment."
'Catastrophe' continues Monday at 10pm on Channel 4